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Lyle Lahey’s local power
Lyle Lahey was grounded in real people. Illustration: Lyle Lahey

Breathing is difficult for me right now, but it’s not because of fear or excitement. I have just returned from a week in my childhood hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the temperatures were in the single digits (Farhenheit, alas) and the air so dry that my head decided that breathing was an option it could skip.

The reason for my trip to Titletown was the sudden death of my stepfather, Lyle Lahey, at the age of 81. I spent a week with my siblings helping my mother organize a memorial gathering, as well as trying to deal with all of the post-death details that need attending, such as changing financial account names, notifying Social Security, etc. Though I have always considered myself somewhat of an outsider no matter where I am, I got a reminder of what one can accomplish being an outsider on the inside.

Lyle’s one great period of his life spent outside Wisconsin was in the early 1950s when he served his country during the Korean conflict. Other than that, he spent his life growing up in rural Abrams, Wisconsin, attending university in Madison, and eventually working in first television and then newspapers in Green Bay. For about the last 40 years of his life, he was an editorial cartoonist for the smallest daily newspaper in the country to have its own political cartoonist. In 1997, he published The Packer Chronicles, a book that — in typical Lyle humorous fashion — reprinted his Packer-related cartoons from the team’s bad years, not the championship seasons the team was then enjoying. And for the past seven years, he drew a total of nearly 700 political cartoons that I helped him post online.

He was a workhorse. For decades until the small daily Green Bay News-Chronicle closed in 2006, he drew political cartoons six or even seven days a week, in addition to editing the paper’s editorial pages. His comics commented on everything from botched police investigations into an auto accident (which resulted in an anonymous caller suggesting the police reenact the accident with Lyle as the victim) to criticism of politicians of both parties. Once, when he mocked George W. Bush, a Vietnam veteran called him up and complained that he hadn’t gone and fought in Vietnam just so Lyle could make fun of our president; Lyle replied, “Well, yes, you did, if you think about it.” Lyle took very seriously his role as a truth-telling political commentator, and he didn’t fight in Korea so that his country could turn into a bunch of servile yes-men.

But it was the local stuff that was the focus of most of Lyle’s cartoons. People appreciated it. I know people whose families subscribed to the News-Chronicle only for Lyle’s comics. Once in high school, a friend and I got into an animated argument over how to pronounce Lyle’s last name — he insisted it was pronounced la-HEY, but I assured him it was LAY-hee. It still amuses me that he thought I didn’t know how to pronounce my own stepfather’s name, but it indicates how much the good people of Green Bay thought Lyle was one of them. I hope they know the feeling was mutual.

Lyle didn’t syndicate his comics, outside of a few other newspapers in Wisconsin that ran them after they’d run in the News-Chronicle. It wasn’t that he couldn’t — he had been published occasionally in other publications; but he specifically chose not to syndicate, because then he would have to cover topics of regional or national interest instead of the local issues that he preferred to cover because, as he said, he thought the people of Green Bay deserved to have someone keeping a watch on their local issues.

Lyle was a local notable, someone known by pretty much everyone in Green Bay. Some people disliked him, but from all of the people I’ve known over the years, I think most people recognized that he said — or drew — what he thought, and he never sold his opinions to the highest bidder. Trust me, if he’d sold out, he’d have been making a hell of a lot more money than he made at the little News-Chronicle.

When the city’s mayor showed up at the memorial service, it was a nice touch. But a sign of how much Lyle touched Green Bay was when a former longtime city council member showed up, visibly deflated by Lyle’s death. The councilman had served for 35 years as the gadfly on the council, the one who would be pilloried by the rest of the council and the media and city leaders because he dared to question sweetheart deals and dumb city decisions. At one point, he noted, “I’ve lost my guardian angel,” because Lyle was the only one in the media who defended him.

A day later, while looking for an urn to hold Lyle’s ashes until my mother’s could be scattered with his, we viewed a sampling of traditional and modern urns at the local funeral parlor. After my mother, my sister, and I made our usual smart-alec remarks about various urns, my mother looked at the funeral home attendant and said, “You’ll have to forgive us, we’ve got a weird sense of humor.” The attendant showed no emotion, which Lyle would have appreciated as much as my mother’s comment itself or our wisecracks.

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